by Brendan Beery
I’m getting old. By noon on January 20, 2017, my lifetime will have spanned 10 presidencies (although I was only around for the tail end of LBJ). The first President I remember was Richard Nixon: I recall his face on a black-and-white television screen as my parents explained to me that he was a very bad man. By the time Reagan ran against Carter, I was fully engaged in American politics. I was pretty young back then (around 12), but I grew up in New York, where politics and religion are what people talk about around the dinner table.
Until 2009, the presidencies of my lifetime were mostly ignominious. By the end of the George HW Bush presidency, I recall wondering whether the US would ever again have a president with any wit. Carter was feckless and uninspiring. Although I was happy with Reagan’s military buildup, I was embarrassed for my country (even as a young teen) every time he tried to wobble through a compound sentence. Then came George HW Bush, and feckless and uninspiring were back, with a twist of whine.
Not until Bill Clinton did I ever think that the President was smart and articulate. That brings me to the subject of this post: the 3 smartest and 3 dumbest presidents of my lifetime.
3. Richard Nixon. Although I wasn’t old enough during his presidency to evaluate his sagacity, in hindsight it is clear that Nixon was no dummy. He was very smart – in a diabolical kind of way. As a pol, he understood the vulnerability of Democrats in the post-civil-rights-laws South, and he mastered the art of bigoted code. He also invented the “silent majority,” convincing middle class whites that they should be very angry at the bellicose minority – hippies, Jews, blacks, communists, and liberals. (He had a mere passing curiosity as to gays, whom he thought should mostly be left alone.) Nixon had a singular facility with racist and anti-Semitic patter. His epic potty mouth articulated animus and paranoia with pristine clarity.
2. Bill Clinton. Clinton is obviously a political genius with an enviable IQ. He’s second because he lacked another kind of intelligence: the smarts to keep his d*** in his pants. Clinton allowed his worst impulses – mostly born of his insatiable longing for adoration and “affection” – to overwhelm his oversized brain. That’s a shame, because he could have been one of the greats. But he played himself into his own losing hand: a presidency that will always be “stained.”
And the Smartest: 1. Barack Obama. The current occupant of the graceful mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania is easily the most cerebral chief executive of my lifetime. He is smart in all the ways Clinton was smart and also smart in all the ways Clinton wasn’t. He has the superior IQ of Clinton, a calm wisdom that seems almost ethereal, and a tactical mind more cunning than Nixon’s. I have said dozens of times during his presidency, “He is playing chess while everyone around him plays checkers.”
3. Ronald Reagan. Reagan was actually a passable writer and, in his younger days, pretty quick on his feet. But his ideas were always dumb and overly simplistic, and he had the kind of addled brain that was susceptible to fear-mongering – about social security as a threat to freedom, for example. He was obviously beset by Alzheimer’s well before departing office, but that’s not a ding against his smarts. Nonetheless, his goofy simplicity and fumbling intellect land him on the dummy list.
2. Gerald Ford. My own experience has been that a sense of humor is a leading marker of intelligence. And Gerald Ford had none. When Chevy Chase skewered Ford’s clumsiness during the early days of Saturday Night Live, Ford would react with a frown, intoning in that dusty, plodding voice that he was a world-class athlete (he played football for the University of Michigan) whose physical coordination was not an appropriate subject for ridicule.
And the Dumbest: 1. George W. Bush. Bush was not just the dumbest president of my lifetime; he’d be the dumbest biped in a stadium full of waterfowl. It is often said that one cannot ascend to an office like governor or president unless one has some neural friction beneath the cranium. Bullshit. After George W Bush took his linguistic circus act to the White House, he was succeeded as governor of Texas by Rick Perry, for God’s sake. The entire Bush presidency was a waking nightmare of serial humiliations for even the mildly bookish. The man was no more equipped to join a subject with a predicate than to decide which country would be the right one to invade. He ushered in an age of anti-intellectualism that destroyed the Republican Party as a credible aspirant to any serious debate about political philosophy.